Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Writers and Readers Week 2012

The NZ Festival’s Writers and Readers Week isn’t done yet. There’re still some session on tomorrow (Wednesday) and I’m heading off to the “Writer’s Dinner” (whatever that may be) tonight.

In the time I have spare between now and the dinner I thought I’d record some of my memories and impressions from my first festival as a performer in front of a home audience.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was moving house over the weekend, which meant I was frequently exhausted. I plan to mine the house-hunting/moving thing for a Dom Post column (or four) in the future, so I won’t say much more about that. Suffice to say it’s been a busy few days.

My first act was as an audience member (albeit on a comped ticket), listening to Tim Flannery’s bitsy opening address at the Town Hall. Flannery is clearly a smart guy and I’m glad he’s out there fighting the good fight against climate change and all that, but I felt uncomfortable several times during his address. I think it has something to do with the cavalier way he discussed New Zealand history, particularly the arrival of Polynesians and the extinction of the moa. New Zealanders would have spent three times as long to say what he said, pussyfooting around the cultural and historical uncertainties, but as an Australian he just ploughed through. Not that I advocate pussyfooting, but sensitivity can be a virtue, as can acknowledging when something is beyond your ken.

Afterwards, I headed up to the council chambers for the opening party. The usual speeches from politicos and festivalites punctuated the relaxed and cheerful night of mingling. I caught up with Kim Scott, who I hadn’t been able to chat with in Perth, and we relived memories of Sydney and the Commonwealth Writers Prize junket.
I also got to chat with some of NZ’s crime writing fraternity, including Vanda Symon, Paul Cleave and Craig Sisterson. You can read Craig’s festival account on his blog. When I heard that these guys had been playing Frisbee in the sun and had missed the opening address I was jealous. In the hopes of one day being invited to play Frisbee I told them of my secret desire to write a crime novel and was roundly encouraged (damn them… why can’t they be more snooty and exclusive like the writers of “literary fiction”).

My session at the Embassy in Wellington was on Saturday afternoon: ‘Emerging Writers’ with Eleanor Catton and Hamish Clayton, chaired by Harry Ricketts. I’d appeared in a session with Hamish in Auckland in May last year (my first ever festival sesh; it seems so long ago) and with Ellie in Melbourne in September, so there was an element of familiarity. (I also had Harry Ricketts as a lecturer for a few English papers at university, but I don’t remember ever talking to him back then, just him talking to me and the 250 other students in the lecture).

Our Embassy Session on Saturday
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
I thought the session went well. There was a bit of a microphone malfunction for Hamish initially, and Harry referred to my book as A Melting Man more than once (I thought the first time might have been an aberration and let the chance to correct him sail by). I read part five of ‘Orbital Resonance’, which is all about house-hunting, as it felt rather appropriate given events in my real life. I got a few chuckles as I read, which is always encouraging.

You can read an… interesting account of the session on the Scoop book’s website. There has been a bit of talk on Twitter about this piece today (most of it negative) and it’s interesting to note that Scoop also has a sanitised version online.

Some gems from the unsanitised version:

When talking about contemporary New Zealand writers ‘emerging’ tends to mean “emerging from the vagina of Bill Manhire’s creative writing course soft, wet, and perfectly formed, but still umbilically attached via VUP”...

I didn’t hear what the conversation was about, as Catton had a beautiful, gentle timbre that I was instantly lost in and it left me forgetting to actually listen to her…

She was also incredibly well-kept – all three writers were, as a matter of fact. They looked like they’d stepped out of a photo shoot backstage. Their hair was tidy, their complexions flawless, their clothes fit them well. They epitomised beautiful youth…

Cliff had a dry humour that the audience warmed to instantly. Casually referring to masturbation in your opening statement is a great way to break the ice with an audience of 200 odd strangers, it seems.
After the session, the three of us were all visited by several audience members at the signing table and signed a number of books. Those that I spoke to seemed to have enjoyed the session. Some had even read my book, but I was most chuffed when two separate people said they enjoy my columns in the paper (I’m constantly wracked with fear that my columns suck / I’m about to be sacked and guilt that I’m squandering a golden opportunity to talk about important things etc etc, but that’s a self-indulgence for another blog post).

To the kind person who said, ‘I even read your blog!’, all I can say is you must be crazier than I am.

The signing table
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
On Saturday night I went along to the VUP party, which doubled as the launch of Harry Ricketts’ poetry collection ‘Then Just’ (strike that, reverse it). Good food and nibbles, good poetry, good company, good times.

Sunday I managed to get along to Alan Hollinghurst’s session with Finlay MacDonald, who surely must be one of the best chairs/interviewers for these sorts of events in the country: personable, funny, well-prepared, unafraid to probe. Part of me hopes to one day sit down one-on-one with him in front of an audience, but part of me dreads the things he’ll trawl up from the internet (!) and the admissions he’ll coax out of me.

Then it was on to the “Industry Drinks” put on by Creative NZ, which were held at the Library Bar (the venue for my book launch back in July 2010). I got to speak to several international authors, but the highlight (if that’s the word) was talking to some of the Creative NZ people. I worked two days a week in the CNZ accounting office for almost two years while I was a student at Vic. This was eight or nine years ago now, but a surprising number of CNZ staff from that time are still around and were there on Sunday. None remembered me.
‘But I used to come around every month and drop off the photocopy of your phone bill so you could identify your personal calls and refund the money?’ I said, plaintively.

(I wanted to be a writer back then. I even did the short fiction workshop up at Vic while working there. And the thing about playing with a datestamp to make impossible dates that features in my story ‘Oh! So Careless’ comes from working at CNZ.)

So was finally being published, appearing at the festival and getting invited to a CNZ boozer as rewarding as I thought it might be back in 2003?

Not really. Nine years is a long time and they seem like nice people.

I did manage to corral a newer CNZ staff member who coordinates a lot of the writer’s residency applications and deploy (in the most cynical, self-serving fashion) a few juicy sound-bites about the need for more literary connections with Australia and the South Pacific…

The sell-out crowd for Jo Nesbo's session
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
On Monday, Hamish, Ellie and I were driven to Masterton for a repeat of our ‘Emerging Writers’ session, though this time we were chaired by David Hedley (owner of the best independent book store in town and a man with more rock’n’roll connections than a mere mortal can fathom – “Every time I run into Eric Clapton these days I just think, ‘You are so straight! What happened to you, man!” etc etc).

Again, the session went well (aside from a few audience members complaining about the sound system – it didn’t help only having two mics for four people, and a few coughing fits from the audience). I read the second half of ‘Manawatu’, which seemed to play alright (I suspect it would have done better if it was called ‘Wairarapa’, but thems the breaks).

Click here for an account of our Masterton session on the Booksellers NZ blog.

[Edit: You can also read my Dominion Post column from 24 March, which is mostly about the festival, here.]
I saw a couple of sessions when I got back to Wellington and then today (Tuesday) I had to go back to work at the Ministry. Bugger eh?

Oh well, I’m off to eat and drink on someone else’s dime again tonight. If only it was Writers and Readers Week every week!


Vanda Symon said...

Next time, Craig, frisbee next time...

Craig Cliff said...